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“We found a needle in a haystack”: the first “dormant” black hole discovered

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“We found a needle in a haystack”: the first “dormant” black hole discovered
Written by madishthestylebar

This is a first: the detection of a black hole in a dormant state, which revolves around another star but still far enough not to swallow its companion. This new type of object, long predicted by theory but very difficult to detect as it is well hidden, was revealed after six years of observation with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the Observatory. European Southern (ESO) in Chile, according to a study published Monday in Nature Astronomy.

“We found a needle in a haystack,” said Tomer Shenar, its lead author, in a statement. For three years, several candidates for the title of “sleeping black hole” had presented themselves, but none had so far been accepted by this international team of astronomers, baptized by the ESO “police of black holes”.

“It’s the first such object discovered after astronomers have searched for decades,” astronomer and study co-author Kareem El-Badry of the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said as quoted by Reuters. . The lucky winner, a dozen times the mass of the Sun, is lurking in the Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way. It is like the second leg of a binary system of two stars turning around, one of which, dead, has become a black hole and the other is still alive.

No “sucked up” material

Stellar-mass black holes – incomparably smaller than their supermassive big brothers – are massive stars (between 5 and 50 times the mass of the Sun) at the end of their lives, which are collapsing in on themselves. These objects are so dense and their force of gravity so powerful that not even light can escape: they are therefore by definition invisible. Scientists can nevertheless observe the material that circulates around it, before being swallowed…. except when the black hole “dozes”, on a diet.

In the binary systems already observed, the star that has become a black hole is close enough to its companion star to “steal” its matter from it (we speak of “accretion”), explains Hugues Sana of the University of Louvain (KU Leuven). , in Belgium, one of the authors of the study. This material, once caught, emits X-rays, which can be detected.

But here, the black hole emits none, and for good reason: “The living star (about 25 times the mass of the Sun) is far enough away not to be eaten. It remains for the moment in equilibrium on this orbit”, lasting 14 days, continues the astronomer. A balance that cannot last, according to him. “The living star will grow, and at this time, part of its surface will be swallowed up by the black hole”, which will then emit X-rays and therefore come out of its dormant state.

A presence that we guess

But how do you know that such an object exists? “Imagine a couple of dancers holding hands, watching them in the dark. One has a black suit, the other a bright suit: you only see the dance of the second, yet you know he has a dance partner, thanks to the study of movement”, explains Hugues Sana.

In astronomy, just as Jupiter and the Sun revolve around each other, we can measure the respective masses of a binary system by observing these movements. To be sure that the phantom object was indeed a black hole, the researchers proceeded by elimination, ruling out several scenarios such as that of a star losing its envelope. “The only reasonable explanation is that it is a black hole, because no other star can reproduce these observational data”, summarizes the researcher.

According to recent models, about 2% of the massive stars in our galaxy are likely to have a black hole around them, or about 100 million, according to Hugues Sana. “At the moment we only know about ten of them, all detected thanks to their X-ray emissions, so we are missing some! »

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